Will Robots Save The Future Of Work?

Is a robot coming for your job?

It’s not a novel question, but if Gartner’s predictions are correct, the answer could be leaning more definitively toward yes. The analyst firm’s research suggests one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025.

What is new, however, is that the influx of robots in the workforce is no longer just a concern confined to manufacturing floors filled with mechanized assembly lines, one of Google’s driverless concept cars passing by or the notion of a drone soon replacing the friendly UPS delivery man.

The entire robotics chain has evolved beyond traditional hardware robots and into a new era that will support end-to-end automation of much of our daily lives. It will have implications stretching across all professions, from blue-collar factory workers and their white-collar equivalent in knowledge work, to those employed by the growing on-demand economy.

Even the mere definition of “robot” has had to evolve to keep pace with the progression of robots’ form and functionally. Historically, the common definition has centered on a machine resembling a living being in some way that is able to replicate certain movements and functions automatically — like the ADAM robot for transporting products or Baxter, who manages facilities tasks spanning from package handling to machine tending and line loading.

However, artificial intelligence applications have pushed the boundary of what a robot is and can do, as evidenced by IPSoft’s cognitive agent Amelia or, better yet, the now-famous Jeopardy battle between Ken Jennings and IBM’s Watson. And more recently, a third wave of robotic evolution has given rise to software robots, the ethereal cousins to their mechanical counterparts that mimic humans in conducting rules-based tasks, but live in the cloud or data center.

“The integration of software and hardware robots will happen, not least because of the connectivity offered by moves toward cloud computing, but also because of the exponential advances we are seeing in technological capability,” claim professors Leslie Willcocks and Mary Lacity, authors of the forthcoming book Service Automation: Robots and The Future of Work. “But do not believe all the hype, it is never seamless, and some of it will go in directions not yet thought of — at least that’s the history of technological progress!”

Robots will be essential to the on-demand economy’s survival.

This new era is what MIT faculty members Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call “The Second Machine Age” — a time in which technological forces are driving this reinvention of the economy and businesses and individuals must learn to race with machines in order to ensure future prosperity.

What many may consider a race against the machines is more realistically going to play out as a relay race — with teams comprised of both a human and virtual workforce seamlessly working together on assigned tasks for which they are ideally and respectively suited to complete an end goal, be it building a car, processing a payment or deploying a service.

Ultimately the benefit will be to the humans, who can eliminate rote, mundane tasks from their daily routines in favor of more engaging and thought-provoking tasks. Businesses will also benefit from a workforce that can be available 24/7 at a more affordable rate than their human counterparts — and without security or data entry error risks.

What ATM machines did for tellers, customers and overall bank operations, companies like leading mobile network provider Telefonica, for example, is doing for tasks like transferring SIM card data to consumers’ new phones, reducing a more than 24-hour process into a matter of minutes.

There is perhaps no better example of where robotics could benefit today’s workforce and drive future prosperity than in the white-hot on-demand economy. Take Uber or any one of the related ride-booking apps as an example. People used to call a taxi company, speak to a dispatcher and be picked up by a driver, who would take them to their destination and expect cash payment. Today, the ride is booked via an app and back-end credit card processing covers payment, with the driver remaining the only personal interaction. It’s likely only a matter of time before a robot replaces that human element.

The influx of robots in the workforce is no longer just a concern confined to manufacturing floors.

Fueled by a number of factors, including ubiquitous communications, very low transaction costs and a desire among consumers to get what they want when they want it, on-demand startups have raised nearly $10 billion in funding since 2010 according to CB Insights. This growth rate — and the hours required to meet the demand created by these 250+ largely service-driven companies — cannot be sustained by humans alone.

Moreover, training, managing and motivating human on-demand workers has proved challenging to many of these companies, not to mention the mounting regulatory and political problems associated with labor laws and staffing such businesses. Robots, to whom these issues do not apply, will be essential to the on-demand economy’s survival.

As professors Willcocks and Lacity note, “Corporate work systems, in our experience, are frequently highly flawed, either through indifferent design or having grown in an ad hoc manner in reaction to problems and various demands. Humans very often fill in as flexible resources for the failings of such systems. What technologies do is provide the opportunity to relook and enhance the relationships between process, technology and people, and that is where the higher productivity will come from.”

Be it in these new on-demand applications or fitting into legacy workflows and processes, in our lifetime we will see the reality of humans truly, seamlessly working alongside robots. A virtual workforce of hardware- and software-driven labor will act as the thread to stitch digital components together, touched by human hands in limited ways — if at all — and eliminating the mundane, boring tasks that make up much of both office work and manual labor as we know it today.

Ultimately, what the first era of robots did for the auto industry starting in the 1960s — improved efficiency, flexibility, quality, safety and the enablement of mass customization — the next era of robotic automation, in the form of a virtual workforce, will do for the modern-day business in the 21st century.